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A response to the Economist on Dr M being 'chief of everything'

Tariq Ismail Mustafa  |  Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT | I refer to Free Malaysia Today and New Straits Times’ articles referencing an editorial in the Economist yesterday entitled “Malaysia’s new leaders have found their first 100 days tough”.

The Economist editorial board opined that though Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Harapan government has made headway in fulfilling key election pledges, in effect Mahathir is hindered by a “novice” cabinet.  

The article further contends that this is resulting in Mahathir having to become the “chief of everything” thus reverting to his old autocratic ways.

The piece also claims this as the reason for Mahathir retaining “cronies” such as those in the Council of Eminent Persons (CEP) and its chairperson Daim Zainuddin.  

Worse still, the Economist is mischievously insinuating that Mahathir has no intention to dismantle racial policies seen as favouring the majority Malays, despite Mahathir’s unexpected move in appointing Lim Guan Eng as finance minister.

The Economist further, and I have to say very subtly, insinuates that this state of governance is hindering Malaysia’s economic growth, by comparing Malaysia’s expected growth rate of 5 percent for 2018 against 6 percent in 2017.  

I have to say this is a very mischievous and almost maligning piece by the Economist. I thus feel compelled to enlighten the public, both local and foreign, of the state of matters as it stands.

The Economist, as influential as it is, must surely understand the nature of change, particularly involving changes in government.  

Who can forget the case of the “missing W’s” when US president George W Bush took over from Bill Clinton?  Or even the debacle of the American cabinet appointments under the leadership of President US Trump.  

Yet, the Economist expects immediate and absolute perfection in the New Malaysia cabinet line-up despite a game-changing opposition win after 60 years of single-party rule?  

The Economist seems to fail to understand that in situations of change, there will be learning curves and there will be knowledge and experience gaps.  

But that is only to be expected.

Exceptional times

I challenge the Economist to undergo an equally momentous change without similar issues, just within its own organisation.

The appointment of the CEP was made in recognition of this gap in experience and knowledge, particularly given the anticipated challenges cleaning up after the Najib administration.  

Professionals in the field of change will know that in such situations of extreme challenges, thus it is important to establish a team focused on clearing and cleaning up while the existing managers ensure business runs as usual.  

Failure to do this will exacerbate the tremendous problems currently faced.  

It is just good change management practice and should be more relevant given the situation New Malaysia finds herself in.  

As for becoming the “chief of everything”, I am surprised the Economist says this.  After all, isn’t a chief executive officer (CEO) a “chief of everything”?  Yes, under normal circumstances, a CEO approves by exception only.  

However, these are exceptional times for New Malaysia.  A new ruling alliance and fresh-faced ministers are faced with a corruption and money-laundering scandal which has inspired a new field of study in international money-laundering, and these same fresh-faced ministers have to contend with the fall-out of that scandal domestically for the next generation at least.  

I ask the CEO at the Economist, had you been the incoming CEO in such a situation, would you freely delegate as you would in more normal circumstances?

Or would you keep a tighter control over the reins of power?

I have to say though, despite all this, Mahathir has been admirably receptive and flexible to the suggestions and objections of the coalition ministers in his crafting of policies and handling of issues.

The most important lesson

I think the Economist and regrettably most Western commentators of our change into New Malaysia underestimate the fine balance of the Pakatan Harapan coalition and the public support behind it.  

There is an assumption especially in international media that the change was imminent simply based on the change instigated by PKR 20 years ago.  And that this meant the Harapan coalition partners are all cut from the same cloth so to speak, and thus of one mind.  This is a simplistic and lazy analysis of Malaysia.  

The reality is that Malaysia’s voting demographics, whether by economic standing or ethnicity, is fractious at best.  This extends to political party support as well.  

PKR would never have made it on its own without the other coalition partners who are more modest in comparison but who still commanded the crucial support from the section of society that could push Harapan over the 50 percent mark to win the elections.

At this juncture, everyone would do well to remember that a coalition by definition is “a temporary alliance for combined action, especially of political parties forming a government”.  Massive amounts of negotiation and give-and-take are required to make a coalition work, and even more so to make it historically successful.

This does not happen without a firm leader guiding the numerous coalition partners in thought and deed such that everyone reaches a consensus.  If this is mistaken for Mahathir reverting to his “old autocratic ways”, I can assure you, a significant number of voting Malaysia is happy for it to remain for now.

I say this because the Economist and probably many others seem to have forgotten the most important lesson of New Malaysia.  It is this – ordinary individuals who share the same universal values and the same desire to do what is right by their own selves, have the power to effect change regardless of race, ethnicity, economic standing, gender, age and ideology.  

As such, the Economist’s pathetic attempts at stoking the fire of dissent and racial enmity topped by a prediction of poorer economic performance will not work in New Malaysia.  

The people of New Malaysia have always been the driver of our own economic and political fortunes, good or bad.  We know this for certain.  And we know that as we had done before, we can do it again if need be.  The power is in our hands.  

TARIQ ISMAIL MUSTAFA is a Bersatu supreme council member.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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